City budget politics puts citizens in angry mood Proposals to cut programs disguise plan for new tax

March 28, 1997|By Robert Guy Matthews and Tom Pelton | Robert Guy Matthews and Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Draconian proposals by the city to cover a multimillion budget shortfall are about as predictable as the arrival of spring and Opening Day at Camden Yards. Making the rounds this year is a proposal to close every recreation center in town and cordon off parks from the public.

Residents were in an uproar yesterday after learning about another element of the budget cuts -- shutting down all of the city's senior citizen centers.

While such drastic cuts are rarely carried out, the reactions of citizens usually put city leaders on the defensive. "What you are hearing is merely a budget exercise of doom and gloom," said Clinton R. Coleman, spokesman for the mayor. "It is getting people all up in arms about things that aren't going to happen."

What Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke really wants is an additional tax, not the shuttering of the recreation centers. Coleman said that the mayor is working on proposals, and that Schmoke is open to all manner of taxes -- except an increase in property taxes.

One of the ways to get a tax passed is to threaten to paralyze the recreation and parks department or, say, shut down library branches. Few things can more quickly put Baltimoreans into an angry mood. The idea is to get people fretting so much over the closing of recreation centers or libraries that the news of an additional tax won't seem so shocking.

The mayor tried the same tactic a year ago. He had limited success. Schmoke wanted an increase in the city's "piggyback" income tax that would have raised the rate by 10 percent to cover a $4.9 million shortfall. He said that if the measure didn't pass, dozens of recreation centers and libraries would be closed.

The City Council, which must approve a new tax, beat the measure down but compromised by passing a parking and amusement tax. Recreation centers and libraries took a hit, but nothing resembling early budget proposals.

City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III said yesterday that when people find out they are reacting to budget politics, they get angry. "It's that time of the year again, and you hear all the horror stories and the worst-case scenarios," Bell said. "This is really not productive."

Yesterday, the news of this year's proposed recreation closings spread among senior citizens playing pool at the John Booth Senior Center on South Eaton Street. Charles Linz, a 69-year-old retired electrician who spends many afternoons at the center shooting pool and playing cards, said the city's elderly would be devastated by any significant reductions in services.

"If these centers closed, where would these people go? It would be a really sad situation," Linz said. "People were talking about this a lot today, and some folks were very upset about it."

Later, when word circulated that an additional tax might be in the making, the same seniors reacted angrily. "I would say that's dirty pool, scaring senior citizens for political reasons," said Catherine McGurrin, a 77-year-old widow who has been shooting pool and singing in choral groups at the senior center for five years.

Residents might have reason to fret about the closing of recreation centers. The recreation department has been under review by an independent board set up by the mayor to scrutinize management and programs. That could mean a revamping of the department. Also, the city must cover its projected $20 million shortfall. Traditionally, the recreation department has been the first to feel cuts.

Still, work on the city's $2.3 billion budget is in the early stages.

The budget will be presented Tuesday to the Board of Estimates for review. After residents have input, the budget could undergo changes. Then it will go to the council for review and another round of changes. The deadline for completion is June 30. The budget would take effect July 1.

Pub Date: 3/28/97

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